POLITICS
09/29/2015 07:07 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2016

The Postal Service Is Sloppy About Mass Surveillance

They're tracking Americans' mail. And they're not careful about it.

WASHINGTON -- The United States Postal Service continues to mismanage its mail tracking program, an operation used by several federal agencies to record details off of envelopes without a warrant, despite warnings from its Inspector General to better monitor the system.

In an audit released quietly earlier this month, the agency’s Inspector General found the postal service is still, despite warnings it received last year, not managing documents appropriately or adequately training personnel to handle sensitive mail covers, a more than century-old process of postal employees recording information off of the outside of envelopes without a warrant. The details gathered from the mail cover program can help lead law enforcement investigators to property details, tax records, communication networks and other evidence in criminal and national security probes. 

The IG warned the Postal Service in 2014 that the program was managed poorly. In an audit report published in May of that year, the IG said the service had failed to handle documents appropriately and that in a handful of cases, covers were approved without sufficient justification, or by people without the appropriate authorization to do so. 

More than a year later, the Postal Services's IG says the agency has cleaned up a little bit, but still has some work to do. 

“Management completed actions to ensure national security mail covers were handled appropriately, mail cover requests were properly approved and justified, periodic reviews were conducted, and controls were improved to ensure facility personnel process mail covers timely,” the IG wrote in its September report, which revisited a list of recommendations made in the 2014 audit. 

However, the report continued, the Postal Inspection Service’s Criminal Investigations Service Center, through which the mail covers program is run, was still not keeping mail cover documents together or filing them on time. In many cases, the IG found, this was because external law enforcement agencies requesting the mail covers weren’t held accountable for failing to get the right documents in on time or at all. 

“These issues occurred because management did not have a process in place to hold external law enforcement agencies accountable for not returning mail cover documents and did not always monitor and track accountable mail cover documents, sufficiently oversee compliance, or clarify requirements and train personnel for internal mail cover requests,” the report says. 

The audit also cites several examples of personnel at postal facilities failing to safeguard the sensitive information derived from mail covers. In some cases, documents containing identifying personal details about Americans were left lying around postal facilities. 

“These accountable documents contain information such as names, addresses, and financial institutions that, if used in the aggregate, could reveal personally identifiable information,” the IG wrote. 

The IG also recommended that the Postal Service be more transparent about the number of mail covers it approves, a recommendation that the agency’s management semi-accepted. It said it would provide those numbers annually to Congress, but would not say whether they would become publicly available. 

The mail covers program is a crucial, if little-known, law enforcement tool that has a relatively low bar to authorize. Between the 2010 and 2014 fiscal years, the Postal Inspection Service approved nearly 160,000 mail covers. Covers can be requested internally from the Postal Service’s criminal division, externally from local and federal enforcement agencies or for national security purposes, which is referred to within the program as a “Special Mail Cover,” or SMC. Of those 160,000 covers, nearly 40,000 were requested by external law enforcement bodies. 

From 2011 to 2013, there were 800 SMC requests approved.

The top federal agencies requesting mail covers were the Internal Revenue Service, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to the 2014 audit.

While opening mail requires a warrant, tracking the information on the outside of an envelope doesn’t. For mail covers to be approved, the requesting agency only has to explain what statute the subject of a mail cover is suspected of violating and why a mail cover could further the investigation. If a cover request requires the tracking of all names at a certain address, the requesting agency also must provide explanation on why recording of all mail is necessary, and verification that the target of the mail cover resides at the requested address. 

The Postal Service did not return a request for comment.

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